It's a perennial issue in Nebraska among water and natural resource leaders—what is the best way to fund water quantity and quality irrigation projects in the state? There are plenty of ideas on the types of projects and research that are needed, but little agreement on irrigation funding sources.
That was evident recently at the combined annual meeting of the Nebraska Water Resources Association and the Nebraska State Irrigation Association meeting held recently in Kearney.
W. Don Nelson led off a panel discussion on the issue by saying that, despite the importance of water to the state and the conflicts that arise among users, funding for water gets little traction in the Legislature.
Nelson, an aide to several Nebraska elected officials at the state and federal levels over the years, said he pulled together a group of Nebraskans a year ago for an informal, in-depth discussion of water financing needs. The group, he said, estimated the state would need about $60 million annually for water science and technology research, to help protect water quality, to restore water infrastructure and to build new projects.
"We throughout the idea of a dedicated sales tax of one-quarter of 1%," Nelson said, "which would bring in approximately $60 million a year."
State Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege and chairman of the Unicameral Ag Committee, followed Nelson on the panel. He said additional funding is needed to help resolve conflicts among irrigators, to help in meeting compliance with river compacts and endangered species laws and for domestic and municipal water needs.
"We can't expand industries or bring in new ones without access to water," he said. "Recreation and environmental uses also have a stake in maintaining water supplies and water quality."
But Carlson said the Nebraska Legislature recently approved a law to target one-quarter of 1% of the state sales tax for road improvement projects. "If we do the same for water funding and don't raising the state sales tax, that's $120 million out of the state budget and away from other state funding needs.
Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, former state senator from Schuler, was term-limited out of office Dec. 31. As chairman of the natural resources committee then, he headed a task force, created by a legislative resolution, that examined water financing. He said there is little chance state senators would dedicate another one-quarter of 1% of the existing sales tax or increase the overall sales tax rate.
State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said legislation to dedicate a portion of the state sales tax to water would add to the property tax burden in agriculture.
However, Christensen said there is increased awareness in Nebraska of water because of the drought in 2012 and on-going water conflicts. "Everyone can see the need for roads, but can you sell the need for water?" he asked. "Most people aren't aware of the importance of water in this state."
Authority granted Nebraska natural resources districts to levy a per-acre irrigation occupation tax of up to $10 for water projects has been controversial, but now is being accepted by many irrigators, he added.